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Muslim Scientists and Thinkers — Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun

By Syed Aslam

Ibn_Khaldun Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun was born in Tunis North Africa in 1332 CE. His ancestors were Yemeni Arabs who settled in Spain in the eighth century. After the fall of Seville his family emigrated to Tunis. Ibn Khaldun memorized the Qur`an by heart at an early age, studied grammar, jurisprudence, hadis,  philology, and poetry in Tunis.  He continued his studies until the age of nineteen, when he lost both his father and mother to the plague. 

Ibn Khaldun entered the service of the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafrakin as a writer of fine calligraphy while he was still a teenager.  Here he got a first-hand look at the inner workings of court politics. In 1352 CE Abu Ziad, the Emir of Constantine attacked and conquered Tunis. Ibn Khaldun escaped to Fez, the capital of Morocco.

He enjoyed the company of many scholars from all over North Africa and Andalusia.  He was promoted from one position to another, finally appointed as a Chief Judge (Qadi) of Fez. The subsequent ruler did not treat him well, so he decided to move to Granada, Andalusia. The sultan welcomed and entrusted him with a diplomatic mission to king Pedro of Castile, Spain. He successfully carried the mission but the Sultan’s vizier became envious of him and did not like his presence in Granada, so he moved back to north Africa.  

In 1382 CE, Ibn Khaldun arrived at Cairo, where he was warmly welcomed by scholars and students. His fame for his writings had already preceded him. He lectured at al-Azhar and other fine schools. He again enjoyed the favors of the sultan and was appointed a Maliki Judge. During this period, Ibn Khaldun devoted his time to lecturing and studying, as well as completing his Universal History. He enjoyed  24 years of  peaceful  life in Cairo and died there in 1406 CE.

Ibn Khaldun is considered the forerunner of several social science disciplines, like historiography, demography, sociology, cultural history and modern economics. He is also considered the father of the science of sociology. Ibn Khaldun’s main work was initially conceived as a universal history.  He divided it into seven books in which  the first book, commonly known as the Muqaddema, was transformed into a unique work of its own. This book is considered a masterpiece of literature on the philosophy of history and sociology. Books two to five dealt with the history of mankind up to the time of Ibn Khaldun, including the history of the Arabs, contemporary Muslim and European rulers, the ancient history of Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, and Islamic history. The sixth book covers the history of Berbers and the Maghreb, and the last volume covers the events of his own life, known  as Al-Tasrif. 

His 800 page book,  the Muqaddema, can be divided into six parts, namely ethnology and anthropology, rural society,  urban society, forms of government, economic facts, science and humanity.

This work  is the essence of Ibn Khaldun’s wisdom and experience. He used his political and first-hand knowledge of the people of Maghrib to formulate many of his ideas. This document summarizes Ibn Khaldun’s ideas about every field of knowledge during his day.   He wrote about astronomy, astrology, and numerology, and dealt with chemistry and alchemy in a scientific way. His discussion of tribal societies and social forces is the most interesting part of his thesis. He illuminated the world with deep insight into the makings and workings of kingdoms and civilizations.

In the field of economics, Ibn Khaldun understands very clearly the supply and demand factors which affect price, the interdependence of prices and the ripple effects on successive stages of production. He discussed the nature and function of money and its tendency to circulate from country to country according to demand and the level of activity. Ibn Khaldun puts forward the insight that all profit comes from labor, the idea which Karl Marx used  to write Das Kapital. He outlines an early example of political economy, and describes economy as being composed of value-adding processes. When  labor is added to techniques and crafts, the product is sold at a higher price. This was a powerful insight, as one can construct an entire theory of economy from this fundamental.

Ibn Khaldun was the founder of the science of sociology, he  fully realized that he had created a new discipline, ilm al-umran, the science of culture, that no one had done before. This science can be of great help to the historian by creating a standard by which to judge accounts of past events.
Ibn Khaldun’s contributions to the field of history was remarkable. He analyzed in detail the sources of error in historical writings, in particular partisanship, overconfidence in sources, failure to understand what is intended, and the inability to place an event in its real context. He understood  the desire of writers to gain the favor from rulers and kings for exaggerating small events.

On the development of the state, and the relationship between the state and society, Ibn Khaldun believed that human society is necessary since the individual acting alone can’t acquire necessary food or security. Only the division of labor, through society, makes this possible. The job of a state is to restrain the natural aggression of human beings. 

History is a constantly changing cycle, argued Ibn Khaldun, with essentially two groups of people–nomads and townspeople, with peasants in between. He characterizes each group; nomads are rough, savage and uncultured,  freedom-loving  and so make excellent fighters. In addition, they have a strong sense of social solidarity. This greatly enhances their military potential. Towns, by contrast, are the seats of the crafts, the sciences, the arts and culture.  Luxury corrupts them, and as a result they become a liability to the state, who need to be protected. Solidarity is completely relaxed and the arts of defending oneself and fighting the enemy are forgotten, so they are no match for conquering nomads, like Mongols who overran the Islamic and Christian world in thirteenth century.

No doubt Ibn Khaldun was one of the most versatile universal thinkers and philosopher of the Islamic civilizations. His work has been translated into many languages both east and west, and have inspired following writers in the development of new disciplines.   The British historian Arnold Toynbee called the Muqaddema the greatest work of its kind that has never been created by any mind in any time or place–the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs works.

Ibn Khaldun’s remained a nonentity among Muslim thinkers till the west discovered him in the 19th century as one of the great mind of the Middle Ages. 


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  1. Mohamed Boukhatmi

    October 2, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Assalamu Alykum,

    I would like to correct your article on Ibn Khaldoun’s origins. Ibn Khaldoun was from the Berber/Amazighen tribes of North Africa. He was not an Arab from Yemen. Please make the necessary corrections. Thank you so much for this interesting article.


    Mohamed S. Boukhatmi

  2. Syed Aslam

    October 22, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Dear Br. Boukhatmi Salam Alykum

    Thank you very much for your comment on my article on Ibn khaldun. He himself traces his ancestry as Yemeni Arab, relying on the Andalusian genealogist Ibn Hazam (d 1065 CE). I have no interest to doubt the authenticity of Ibn Khaldun’s genealogy. The biographer Muhammad Enan of Egypt have questioned Ibn Khaldun’s claim which is based on the circumstantial evidence. Luckly I have a copy of that book written in 1932 at Cairo and its english translation published in 1993 at lahore pakistan.

    Thank you once again for your interest in my article, but I am not going to change the origin of Ibn Khaldun to Berber. as suggested by you. It matters nothing to me or to my reader, weather he was an Arab or a Berber. The only thing I know that he was one of the greatest Muslim thinkers ever born and that is what I cherish.
    Syed Aslam

  3. syed ahmad

    October 28, 2008 at 11:14 pm


  4. Salman KArim

    October 30, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    I am surprised that he wrote 800 pgs by hand! This article has raised my knowledge about Ibn. Khalidun. THank You
    Salman Karim

  5. Chin Yew Meng

    April 16, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Excellence ! I never know that a msulim have developed all these theories 600 year ago ! Unbeliieveable .

    I will try to look for his book , and go throught iiiiiiiiiiiiiit !


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